17 December 1939
“You must get on with the war, and in order to enable you to do so I now declare No.2 Service Flying Training School [SFTS] open,” said the Governor General, the Earl of Athlone, under bright blue skies at Uplands Airport just outside of Ottawa. With these words, the first intermediate flying school of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was open for business. (No. 1 SFTS, located at Camp Borden opened three months later.) Eight Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS), located across the country, had already opened earlier that summer to provide basic flying skills to novice flyers.
The opening of No.2 SFTS came none too soon. Across the Atlantic that afternoon of 5 August 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging. With the RAF sorely stretched, trained pilots were desperately needed, both for the battle underway and for the successful future prosecution of the air war against the German Luftwaffe.
The genesis of the BCATP dated back to the mid-1930s when Britain, conscious of the growing Nazi threat, began to rebuild its armed forces, including its air service. In 1936, a Scottish-Canadian in the Royal Air Force (RAF), Group Captain Robert Leckie, wrote a memorandum to Arthur Tedder, then Director of Training at the British Air Ministry, suggesting Canada as an ideal location to train air crews. Canada was safe from enemy attack, and was close to the U.S. industrial heartland which could supply necessary aircraft engines and parts.
Additionally, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had a close relationship with its British counterpart. As well, the RAF routinely recruited Canadians for both short-term and permanent positions. Moreover, during the latter years of World War I, flight training schools had been established in Canada by the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the RAF.
When Prime Minister Mackenzie King got wind of the idea, he was conflicted. On the one hand, he was very protective of Canada’s new sovereignty. Following the ratification of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, Canada was no longer subordinate to Great Britain either domestically or internationally. Consequently, he could not support RAF bases in Canada. The Prime Minister was also conscious of how the presence of British bases in Canada might appear to Quebec voters. On the other hand, he thought that if Canada’s contribution to the coming war effort could be largely focused on training air crews in Canada, it might be possible to avoid both large-scale casualties and a repeat of the conscription crisis that had divided the country during the previous war.
Agreement was reached to increase the number of Canadian-trained pilots for the RAF, and steps were taken to develop a common RAF/RCAF flying syllabus among other things. However, Leckie’s concept of using Canada for RAF training bases was put on the backburner until the outbreak of war in September 1939 when Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner in London, met with his Australian counterpart, Stanley Bruce. Out of this meeting was born the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Who came up with idea is unclear as both men took credit for it. Regardless, they made a joint submission to the British authorities. Neville Chamberlin, the British Prime Minister, was enthusiastic, and made a personal appeal to Mackenzie King asking him to give the proposal his very urgent attention. Chamberlain expressed the view that the establishment of training bases in Canada safe from German attack would have a psychological impact on Germany equivalent to that produced by the entry of the United States into the previous war.
While Prime Minister King was initially upset that Massey had exceeded his authority, he quickly warmed to the idea…with conditions. Most importantly, Canadian sovereignty had to be respected. The flying schools would come under the authority of the Canadian government and would be administered by the RCAF. Consequently, trainees would be attached to the RCAF, would be subject to its jurisdiction, and would receive Canadian rates of pay. King also demanded that Britain agree to purchase Canadian wheat and that the BCATP would take priority over other Canadian war commitments. He also wanted Canadian pilots to be sent after graduation to RCAF squadrons in Britain as opposed to being subsumed into the RAF.
The Australians and Zealanders also had conditions of their own, importantly that costs be shared on the basis of population and that elementary flying instruction for their pilots would be conducted at home.
With these terms acceptable to the British, King sent his agreement in principle to Chamberlain at the end of September 1939 though his government continued to worry about the scale and cost of the venture.
Over the next three months, Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand negotiators thrashed out the fine print of the accord and how the costs would be divided. It was hard going at times. But in the wee hours of 17 December 1939, Mackenzie King’s birthday, the Canadian prime minister signed the accord, followed by Lord Riverdale on behalf of the British government. As the Australian and New Zealander delegates had already left Ottawa, their governments’ signatures were appended later.
The agreement was officially titled “An Agreement to the Training of Pilots and Aircraft Crews in Canada and their Subsequent Service.” Later that day, in a radio address to the nation, King described the agreement as “a co-operative undertaking of great magnitude.” Charles Power, the Minister of National Defence, called it “the most grandiose single enterprise which Canada has ever embarked.” In a similar broadcast, Chamberlain, as requested by King, said that the BCATP would be more effective than any other kind of Canadian military co-operation. However, he added that the British Government would welcome “no less heartily” Canadian land forces in the theatre of conflict as soon as possible.
The cost of the agreement, which was to run until end-March 1943 unless otherwise extended, was placed at $607 million of which Canada’s share would be $353 million. The British contribution was set at $185 million, mainly in the form of airplanes and parts. The Australians and New Zealanders would contribute $40.2 million and $28.8 million, respectively.
Work immediately began to make the agreement a reality, with C.D. Howe, the Minister of Munitions and Supply, taking charge. Within days, offices were organized in temporary buildings in Ottawa, and contracts signed. By early spring 1940, air fields were being prepared, and the construction of hangers and other facilities underway.
Here in Ottawa, No. 2 SFTS, making use of an existing civilian airfield, practically sprang out of the ground overnight. In the space of just a few months, roughly forty buildings were constructed at the edge of Uplands field on what the Citizen described as a “desert waste of hillocks, tufted here and there with rank, saffron-coloured grass.”
The flying school boasted five double hangars to store aircraft, each 224 feet by 160 feet with 20-foot sliding doors. There were also buildings to house ambulances, a fire truck, refueling tankers, tractors, and other vehicles. There were quarters for 1,100 military and civilian personnel with canteens, messes, a recreation building, and a sports pavilion. As well, there were a supply depot, a guard house, a watch office, a drill hall, a ground instruction school, two bombing instruction schools, and a 34-bed hospital. Special storage tanks held 20,000 gallons of aviation fuel. There was also a depot for aerial bombs and machine gun ammunition. Located close to the main runway was an air-traffic control room. The landing facilities consisted of three tarmacked landing strips and three grass strips. Planes could land in every direction. There were also two subsidiary air fields located at Edwards and Pendleton, Ontario.
As the Ottawa training school was for intermediate training, pilots assigned to No.2 SFTS had already received flight instruction on Fleet or Tiger Moth aircraft, accumulating 40-50 hours of solo training. The maximum speed of these airplanes was 90-100 miles per hour. In Ottawa, the men graduated to Harvard training craft, capable of a top speed of more than 200 mph.
The Harvards, which were painted bright yellow, were dual-controlled, and were powered by 400hp Pratt & Whitney engines. The twelve planes stationed initially at Ottawa were built by the North American Aviation Company of California. More were in transit. Later, Harvards were constructed under licence by the Noorduyn Aircraft Company in Montreal.
On the other side of the Bowesville Road across from the flying school, the Ottawa Car and Aircraft Company was in the process of erecting a new plant for the construction of parts for the Avro Anson twin-engine aircraft to be used for training bomber pilots.
On opening day, 5 August 1940, the Governor General was accompanied by a distinguished entourage, including Prime Minister King, Defence Minister Ralston, Air Minister Power, Air Vice Marshall Breadner, and Honorary Air Marshall W.A. (Billy) Bishop, VC. The twelve, yellow Harvard trainers were lined up in front of the hangars. In front of the aircraft was an honour guard standing at attention to take the salute of Earl Athlone. A RCAF band from Trenton played Land of Hope and Glory. After No.2 SFTS was declared open, the Harvard trainers were flown in various formations to the delight of the crowds there to witness the historic event.
In July 1941, a Warner Brothers crew from Hollywood filmed part of the feature movie Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney, at Uplands airfield. Billy Bishop played a cameo role in a “wings ceremony,” where actual pilots received their wings in a stirring graduation ceremony. Click here for a preview of the movie: Captains of the Clouds.
The BCATP was a huge success, training roughly 50 per cent of all Commonwealth airmen during the war. In addition to Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand personnel, men from many other Allied countries received their flight training in BCATP schools, including Norwegians, Poles, Belgians, Free French, Czechs and Americans. In a 1943 congratulatory letter to prime minister King. US President Roosevelt called Canada “the aerodrome of democracy.” (As an interesting sidebar to history, Lester B. Pearson, then the number two person at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, was the person who coined the phrase—an allusion to Roosevelt naming the US the “arsenal of democracy” in a late 1940 speech. Breaking diplomatic protocol, the White House staff had contacted the Canadian embassy and had asked Pearson to help draft the latter.)
With an Allied victory on the horizon, the program started to be wound down in late 1944 and was terminated at the end of March 1945. During the BCATP’s time in operation, more than 131,553 aircrew graduated from 105 flight schools of various description at a cost of $2.23 billion (roughly $35 billion in today’s money). Of this amount, Canada paid $1.6 billion ($25 billion). While the cost was considerable, victory in the air was made possible by the BCATP.
In 1949, representatives from all countries that had participated in the BCATP paraded at RCAF Station Trenton to witness the unveiling of a set of wrought-iron gates given to Canada by the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, as a permanent memorial and a symbol of Commonwealth friendship and unity.
Dunmore, Spencer, 1994. Wings for Victory, McClelland & Stewart, Inc. Toronto.
Evening Citizen, 1939. “Four Govts. Are ‘Well Pleased’ With Air Pact,” 19 December.
——————-, 1939. “Gives Further Details Of Air Training Plans,” 19 December.
——————-, 1940. “Governor-General Opens Empire Training School At Uplands Field,” 6 August.
——————, 1940. “Crowds Are Thrilled By Formation Flying,” 6 August.
Hatch, F. J., 1983. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945, Department of National Defence, Directorate of History, Monograph Series No. 1.
Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.